Opinion: Can devolution enable UK cities to become smart and sustainable?

Tim DixonProfessor in Sustainable Futures in the Built Environment, School of Construction Management and Engineering, University of Reading and Walker Institute Associate

city_croppedUK cities now seem likely to get greater powers to raise money and make their own decisions under a new Conservative government. But for cities to be smarter and more sustainable, and help meet national emissions targets, three other critical elements need to be in place: an integrated vision to inspire people; innovation to bring about change; and new thinking across disciplines and professions. 

Given the promise of new devolved powers for cities, with the Conservatives focusing on the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, how might this play out as a new Conservative Government takes shape?

Recent policy reviews by think tanks such as ResPublica have argued that evolving fiscal powers to cities would enable them to achieve greater autonomy, efficiency and collaboration with a strong focus on ‘place-making’. Currently the UK has a highly centralised system of funding, with only about 17% of funding being raised locally, compared with 55% in other OECD countries. Additionally London continues to dominate the city landscape in the UK, with more than 4 out of 5 private sector jobs in the UK created there between 2010 and 2012.

Rebalancing the economy towards other key cities is essential, but the UK’s national carbon emission targets and the big role that cities play in creating emissions and consuming energy also require us to think very carefully about how we can make our cities both smarter and more sustainable. After all, smarter ways to govern cities (or ‘governance’) is an important way of helping achieve environmental, economic and social sustainability in our cities. But can we achieve this through greater devolution to cities?

The answer is, it depends, because three other pieces of the jigsaw are important too.

An integrated vision to inspire people

Firstly, it depends on whether cities also have an integrated vision of where they want to be by 2050 and beyond. Recently the “smart city” model has gained further traction, as commercial companies have seen a growing market for the future development of smart city technologies, and the supply of “big data” (or huge, dynamic datasets) has increased. Proponents argue that technology can be leveraged to enhance economic development and the quality of life, and that the increasing availability and integration of big data, can be used to underpin these goals. Information for decision-making at a range of scales is therefore vital, and further enhanced by the rapid development of pervasive technologies, such as mobile devices and ubiquitous computing, both in cities and people’s daily lives.

However, the smart city concept in its purest sense presents substantial challenges, and there is a real danger that by focusing exclusively on the alluring “smart” technology aspects of cities, that this distracts and deviates us from following a truly sustainable path of urban development. This is vital to bear in mind given that the majority of the buildings (and cities) in the developed world are likely to be still here in 2050, and so the main focus has to be on ensuring that existing cities are both smart and sustainable.

Cities need to develop an integrated approach to smart and sustainable thinking which joins up the best elements of smart technologies and sustainable practices. Developing inclusive visions for cities is fundamental to this goal, and putting people at the heart of any future vision for a city is critical to success. Although there is no single agreed definition of a smart city, smart city thinking typically sees pervasive technologies (including, for example, telecom networks, transport and infrastructure systems, sensors, meters and other networked systems) as offering the ability to connect, integrate and analyse data to enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of cities.

Data, however, does not exist in a vacuum, and people use technologies and react and behave in the context of their social practices and learning, so placing citizens centre-stage in a smart city view of the future is vital. This means not only understanding the context of the data generated, but also understanding how governance systems can be framed to protect privacy and confidentiality, as well as ensuring people across a city have access to appropriate technologies, and making sure that there is a recognition that “no one size fits all” for cities. This also means that to understand how cities respond to urban challenges, we need an integrated approach to thinking about (figure 1):

  • society;
  • economy;
  • environment; and,
  • governance


Figure 1: Four key themes in a smart and sustainable city*


*Adapted from International Telecommunications Union (2014): Smart Sustainable Cities-An Analysis of Definitions.

Innovation to bring about change

Secondly, for devolution to succeed in making our cities smart and sustainable, cities also need to recognise the benefits of using big data to improve the quality of life for its citizens through improved decision-making and better information and customer service. This needs to recognise the challenges around privacy and security. To help tackle these challenges urban innovation “ecosystems” need to be created that combine the expertise of civic society (including people and local government), business and academia. This links very closely with the idea of creating urban innovation in cities, and has also led to the development of “urban transition laboratories” or “urban living laboratories”, which are centres of reflexive learning and social innovation co-created by cities, business and academia. In a continued era of austerity, and with the likelihood of further funding cuts for local authorities, cities will also need to find innovative ways of financing the transition to a more sustainable future. Perhaps initiatives such as Gothenburg’s and Johannesburg’s green municipal bonds can provide us with valuable lessons in this respect.

New thinking across disciplines and professions

Thirdly, interdisciplinary thinking is needed, which brings together different disciplines, and this must not only be at the heart of research and development in smart and sustainable cities and big data solutions, but also in professional practice in the built environment. After all, cities are ultimately about people. As Shakespeare wrote, “What is the city but the people?” Understanding this fundamental truth is critical to developing thinking around smart and sustainable cities, and building our thinking about cities through ‘integration’, ‘innovation’ and ‘interdisciplinarity’ can help us maximise the potential of devolution in a post-election environment.

For further information on this topic please see the University of Reading’s new position paper:  Smart and Sustainable: Using Big Data to Improve People’s Lives in Cities

See also the Reading 2050 City Vision project

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